An abridged version of this article appeared in the Jewish Thinker section of Haaretz on 17/12/14
When the early Zionists looked for historical precedents of Jewish political independence, they found a natural point of reference in the Hanukkah story. The Hasmonean uprising was a turning point in Jewish history: for the first time since the Babylonian exile, the Jews fought a regional power and won. That victory led to the re-establishment of a politically independent Jewish commonwealth under a Jewish monarch for the first time since the destruction of the First Temple.
And yet, the Talmud doesn’t even mention it! The question “What is Hanukkah?” gets an answer, all right, but it isn’t the answer that we expect. Instead of a history lesson, we get a colorful story of how the sole remaining jar of ritual olive oil for the menorah sufficed for eight days, until more could be brought—a nice story, but not particularly satisfying. What about the military victory over vastly superior forces? What about the resurrection of an independent Jewish state? Tell us about the real miracles—the ones that changed the course of history!
But it wasn’t only the Talmud that was mysteriously reticent about the Hasmonean victory. The earlier Sages went to great lengths to obscure the underlying political and military basis of the holiday, along with the ensuing civil war. The books of the Maccabees were left out of the Jewish canon altogether.
Why this seeming censorship? The answer may have something to teach us about the clash of civilizations.
The dangers of failing states
The culture against which the Hasmoneans fought was one whose values were at odds with those of the Jewish culture on a number of levels. It was an empire built solely on conquest, on picking up the pieces left by the ruin of earlier empires. Moreover, it was a failing culture. The Hellenism of the day was dying; the center of gravity of Greek political power had shifted to western Asia, leaving its original homeland increasingly depopulated and economically bankrupt. While the outer trappings of Hellenism were enthusiastically adopted by the Seleucid elites, its cultural institutions were missing or enfeebled.
Around 150 BC, the Greek historian Polybius wrote:
In our time the whole of Greece has been subject to a low birth rate and a general decrease of the population, owing to which cities have become deserted and the land has ceased to yield fruit, although there have neither been continuous wars nor epidemics…. As men had fallen into such a state of pretentiousness, avarice, and indolence that they did not wish to marry, or, if they married, to rear the children born to them, or at most as a rule but one or two of them, so as to leave these in affluence and bring them up to waste their substance, the evil rapidly and insensibly grew. For in cases where of one or two children the one was carried off by war and the other by sickness, it is evident that the houses must have been left unoccupied, and as in the case of swarms of bees, so by small degrees cities became resourceless and feeble. (Polybius 36:17)
David Goldman, the author of Why Civilizations Die, highlights demographic decline as a factor in—or a symptom of—societal decline.
Demographers have identified several different factors associated with population decline: urbanization, education and literacy, the modernization of traditional societies. Children in traditional society had an economic value, as agricultural labor and as providers for elderly parents; urbanization and pension systems turned children into a cost rather than a source of income. And female literacy is a powerful predictor of population decline among the world’s countries. Mainly poor and illiterate women in Mali and Niger bear eight children in a lifetime, while literate and affluent women in the industrial world bear one or two. (Spengler, the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse.)
In other words, civilizations can die of their own success!
And, not surprisingly, we find that secularism and religion tend to clash as well, as individualism promotes “I-religion” or “no-religion”, both of which tend toward isolationism. Goldman points out that demographic decline goes hand-in-hand with secularism.
But what determines whether [a couple has] one child or two? Children also have a spiritual value. That is why the degree of religious faith explains a great deal of the variation in population growth rates among the countries of the world. The industrial world’s lowest fertility rates are encountered among the nations of Eastern Europe where atheism was the official ideology for generations. The highest fertility rates are found in countries with a high degree of religious faith, namely the United States and Israel. And demographers have identified religion as a crucial factor in the differences among populations within countries. When faith goes, fertility vanishes, too. The death-spiral of birth rates in most of the industrial world has forced demographers to think in terms of faith. Dozens of new studies document the link between religious belief and fertility. (Spengler, the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse.)
The tension between communalism and individualism fuels growth and achievement in a society. But eventually individualism wins out. The result is an “I-society”: I want, I’m too busy to raise a family, I have to accomplish something before I die…. We often see increasing individualism, at the expense of communal solidarity, in societies that are on the brink of demographic decline.
This is the fate that befell the Hellenistic society at the time of the Seleucid Empire.
Live long and prosper!
But it wasn’t only the Hellenistic culture that was in turmoil. Judea had never really recovered from the Babylonian exile some 400 years previously. It was a culture desperately fighting to reestablish a national ethos and identity. Schisms and enmities within the society were rife, and easily exploited by the Seleucid authorities.
In 171 BCE the king [Antiochus] dismissed Jason [the corrupt High Priest], crowning the treasurer of the Temple, Menelaus, in his stead. The book of Maccabees even relates the price that Menelaus paid for his new job – three hundred coins more than Jason had offered. (R’ Benyamin Lau, The Sages, Vol. I)
While corruption and the breakdown of civil society are factors in societal decline, the Torah attempts to deal with these issues proactively. This is done via particular laws for the distribution of public funds and more generally via built-in checks and balances. There is a gritty realism built into the system from its very foundation, an understanding that no failure is absolute, that there is always a way to set things right. T’shuvah is said to be one of the things in existence before the Creation of the world.
For example, in the description in Leviticus of the sin offerings which Israelites must bring if they should sin, in every case the Biblical language indicates that If an Israelite shall sin, he shall be liable for such an offering, but in the case of nessim (magistrates), that is to say, those who are in positions of political leadership, the phrase is “When a nasi shall sin.” In other words, by changing two letters the passage conveys the sense of how those holding political office inevitably must violate some moral commandments out of political necessity and provision is made for acknowledging that reality. (Daniel Elazar, The Jewish Political Tradition as the Basis for Jewish Civic Education: Pirkei Avot as an Example)
One of the things the Torah tries to instill in us is the connection between cause and effect—not on the level that immediately meets the eye but on the deeper level. Statements like “the Temple was destroyed because of Israel’s sins” appear overly simplistic, and yet they challenge us to look below the surface. They are meant to provoke a reaction, to make us say, “That can’t be right! It was the lack of air superiority that allowed it to happen!” But no, there were indeed deeper factors at work—corruption at high levels, complacency, self-serving individualism… all the ills of a failing state.
While the Torah couches all this in language of sin and punishment, we can equally see it as simple cause and effect:
כִּי אֶת-כָּל-הַתּוֹעֵבֹת הָאֵל, עָשׂוּ אַנְשֵׁי-הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר לִפְנֵיכֶם; וַתִּטְמָא, הָאָרֶץ.
וְלֹא-תָקִיא הָאָרֶץ אֶתְכֶם, בְּטַמַּאֲכֶם אֹתָהּ, כַּאֲשֶׁר קָאָה אֶת-הַגּוֹי, אֲשֶׁר לִפְנֵיכֶם.
(ויקרה יח: כו)
|For all these abominations have the men of the land done, who were before you, and the land is defiled,
[do not do likewise] that the land not vomit you out as well when you defile it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you.
Note that there is no need for an obvious divine hand in this; it’s enough for a society to indulge in certain social ills for its decline to be inevitable.
And as with the bad, so with the good—there are mitzvot that naturally lead to good outcomes through simple cause and effect.
כִּי יִקָּרֵא קַן-צִפּוֹר לְפָנֶיךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּכָל-עֵץ אוֹ עַל-הָאָרֶץ, אֶפְרֹחִים אוֹ בֵיצִים, וְהָאֵם רֹבֶצֶת עַל-הָאֶפְרֹחִים, אוֹ עַל-הַבֵּיצִים–לֹא-תִקַּח הָאֵם, עַל-הַבָּנִים. שַׁלֵּחַ תְּשַׁלַּח אֶת-הָאֵם, וְאֶת-הַבָּנִים תִּקַּח-לָךְ, לְמַעַן יִיטַב לָךְ, וְהַאֲרַכְתָּ יָמִים.
(דברים כב: ו)
|If a bird’s nest chance to be before you in the way, in a tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs, and the mother sitting upon the young or upon the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young. You must let the mother go, but the young you may take; that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days.|
יא כַּבֵּד אֶת-אָבִיךָ, וְאֶת-אִמֶּךָ–לְמַעַן, יַאֲרִכוּן יָמֶיךָ, עַל הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר-ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ.
|Honour your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which Hashem your God gives you.|
Both of these “long life mitzvot” offer certain guarantees to us as a people, not necessarily as individuals. A society that honors its parents will tend to be a stable society, where wisdom, love, and tradition are passed down and valued. A society that conserves its natural resources, by not killing two generations of animals at once, has a better chance of long-term survival.
Both of these mitzvot thus confer long life—honoring parents guarantees a long cultural life for a people, whereas conserving nature guarantees a long physical life. It’s just that the long life has to be seen in a wider context than just individual life. Both of these mitzvot lie at the intersection between the individual and Am Yisrael. Both are mitzvot that the individual does and the wider society benefits.
The victory of defeat
While the philosophy of quietism so evident in the Mishah and Talmud has often been attributed to fear of the non-Jewish authorities, this attitude appears to be part of a deliberate pedagogical program which started with the Tanakh itself. Jacob Wright notes that the Biblical text consistently downplays—or omits altogether—tributes to military victories and state-centric monuments. He makes a good case for the notion that this was a conscious policy—an attempt to shift the nation’s values away from statehood and toward peoplehood.
The classic biblical hero isn’t the warrior who valiantly dies in battle, but rather the man who goes out to fight and then returns home to care for his family. The biblical exemptions to going to war set out in Deuteronomy 20:5-7 are not for conscientious objectors; they exempt those who have something more important to do than going to war. Raising families and harvesting crops win out over fighting the king’s battles.
But it may be that there’s a still deeper lesson. The failing empire of Antiochus provided valuable practice for the far more serious threat of Rome—both politically and religiously. The national unity whose lack led to a disastrous civil war and an all-or-nothing fight for survival was still missing two centuries later. The lessons weren’t learned at the time. It may be that this is exactly what the rabbis of the Talmud were trying to put right. Even in the midst of a crisis of existential proportions, they could see that the political and military fight, though important, was not the heart of the matter. What mattered was that Jewish values themselves should be so well internalized that no wedge could be driven between the disparate parts of society.
Had there been no corruption in the Temple, the Romans would not have been able to exploit internal schisms for their own ends. Less polarization between rich and poor would have allowed for a more united front against Roman policies meant to “buy loyalty”. And a less self-serving leadership would have provided better decision-making in the face of external threats.
A light on the threshold
And here we find the real focus of Hanukkah: a clash of two cultures, each struggling for survival. While the Seleucid Empire shone in the reflected light of a brilliant but dying Hellenistic culture, Jewish society was struggling to relight the fires of its own cultural identity after the Babylonian exile. It’s quite possible that had Jewish society of the time been stronger in its identity, its clash with Hellenism would have been neither traumatic nor violent; Jewish cultural elites would have taken from the foreign culture what could easily be woven into the fabric of Jewish tradition, and calmly rejected the rest.
But that’s not how the story went—and this history lesson is subtly woven into the observance of Hanukkah. The hanukkiah is not lit in the private space of the home, nor is it traditionally lit in purely public spaces; rather, it is set out on the threshold of the home, marking the dividing line between private and public space, between the light streaming outward from the home and the light coming in from outside. And really, this is what the holiday is all about: defining distinctions between what is inside and what is outside—what values we assimilate from other cultures and what is best left outside, what customs and world-views uniquely define us, and what traditions and practices we can let go of in light of new circumstances. In the end, our light meets the lights of other cultures, and yet remains itself.
And so we come to the secret of the answer given by the Sages. Pressed to explain what Hanukkah was all about, the Sages said nothing about the military and political victories, but instead brought forward a beautiful midrash that sums up the true miracle of that time: For all that we were dragged into a brutal war of brother against brother, of the settling of scores and the collapse of government; for all that we had so forgotten our own Oral Law that much of it had to be recreated later by Sages whose very names were no longer Jewish—still, our light did not go out. We came through one of the darkest periods of Jewish history with our inner fires still burning, ready to rebuild.